[show=richardheene size=large]The news cycle on now-viral phenomenon Balloon Boy might be fading, which is good, because the more I hear about Richard Heene, the man who may be responsible for a hoax that bamboozled news organizations for a solid day, the less attention I think he deserves. But it’s easy to see why the story has lasted so long — if you dig just slightly into Heene’s story, it becomes a fascinating trainwreck.
This Saturday, Gawker had a particularly damning account from Heene’s one-time research assistant Robert Thomas, who described the aspiring reality TV star as having “a steadfast determination to become famous and live a Hollywood lifestyle.” Thomas was paid for his story, and the tale he tells is not short on bias. However, one element is incontrovertibly true: Heene’s never been afraid to take a DIY approach to achieving stardom, as evidenced by his attempt at a web series covering scientific theory, The Psyience Detectives.
Shot with the approximate production values of a cable access show, to the point where the video quality on YouTube looks like a cheap VHS dub, Psyience features Heene with co-hosts Scott Stevens and Barbara Slusser basically just chatting behind a desk about various phenomena, both scientific and pseudo-science-y, devoting the same amount of time to UFOlogy as they do to tornadoes.
Episode 5 does support Thomas’ Gawker claim that Heene was increasingly paranoid about the coming end of the world in 2012 (as predicted by the Mayans and Roland Emmerich). But for the most part, these multi-part episodes are a glib and rambling look at realms of thought easily written off by skeptics, and the format is almost painfully un-web-friendly, with each approximately hour-long episode broken down into YouTube-sized 7- to 10-minute chunks. If you don’t want to watch the episodes on YouTube, though, don’t worry! In an interesting twist, while The Psyience Detectives home page is currently down due to “To much Traffic” (sic), you can still access the show’s online store, where DVDs of each episode are on sale for $17.99 a pop, via PayPal. DVDs, guys! Bargain of the century!
Also, the organization of said episodes is a mess, spread out between two different YouTube accounts, TstAllTruth and YouTubianAwards. The latter account also includes some of the Heene family’s past appearances on local news, as well as a semi-original music video starring the Heene sons, including Falcon, denouncing all things “pussified.” I really wish I was making that up.
According to this Fox News article, Psyience co-host Slusser stopped working with Heene because she didn’t approve of the self-taught storm chaser taking his children with him as he and wife Mayumi followed Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. (At least one real storm chaser thinks he’s a reckless idiot and worse, for the record — critique to which Heene responds by by mocking the blogger’s “fat boobs.”) But the storm-chasing family branding was one Heene relied on, as evidenced by not just this ABC News profile of the Heene family, but the family’s two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.
The depressing thing about following the Balloon Boy story is how painfully obvious a lot of it seems. Man wants to be a TV star; man is unafraid to put his family in the spotlight; embarrassing incident becomes national headline. But it makes one imagine what a more new media-savvy version of Heene might have tried — because possibly the most disappointing and frustrating part of the Balloon Boy saga, from a storytelling perspective, is that the alleged hoax seems simultaneously so pointless and so obvious.
Had he done more to manage his online presence, a simple Google search wouldn’t pull up embarrassing finds like the DVD sales page and inflammatory blog comments. Had he made use of the tools available, he could have taken far more ownership of the story, and controlled it well beyond a brief, vomit-filled Today Show appearance. Then again, it’s not too surprising that things worked out this way. The one thing revealed by The Psyience Detectives is that the concepts of web video production and social networking appear to be kind of lost on Heene.